Why We Won't Get to Mars Without Teamwork

Special issue of APA’s flagship journal looks at the psychology of teamwork

WASHINGTON — If humanity hopes to make it to Mars anytime soon, we need to understand not just technology, but the psychological dynamic of a small group of astronauts trapped in a confined space for months with no escape, according to a paper published in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.

"Teamwork and collaboration are critical components of all space flights and will be even more important for astronauts during long-duration missions, such as to Mars. The astronauts will be months away from home, confined to a vehicle no larger than a mid-sized RV for two to three years and there will be an up to 45-minute lag on communications to and from Earth," said Lauren Blackwell Landon, PhD, lead author of "Teamwork and Collaboration in Long-Duration Space Missions: Going to Extremes." (PDF, 158KB)

Currently, psychological research on spaceflight is limited, especially regarding teams. Applying best practices in psychology, the authors offered insights into how NASA can assemble the best teams possible to ensure successful long-duration missions.

Astronauts who are highly emotionally stable, agreeable, open to new experiences, conscientious, resilient, adaptable and not too introverted or extroverted are more likely to work well with others. A sense of humor will also help to defuse tense situations, according to the authors.

The long delay in communication to and from Earth will mean that crews will have to be highly autonomous as they will not be able to rely on immediate help from Mission Control. The authors said this will be an ongoing challenge and having defined goals, building trust, developing communication norms and debriefing will help alleviate potential conflict.

The researchers also advised the use of technology to monitor the physiological health of astronauts to predict points of friction among team members, due to lack of sleep, for example.

"Successfully negotiating conflict, planning together as a team, making decisions as a team and practicing shared leadership should receive extensive attention long before a team launches on a space mission," said Landon.

The paper is part of a special issue of American Psychologist, focusing on the psychology of teams and teamwork. The issue was guest edited by Susan McDaniel, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center, and Eduardo Salas, PhD, Rice University.

Contact: Lauren Blackwell Landon, PhD

Among the articles in the special issue:

  • The Science of Teams in the Military: Contributions from over 60 years of research (PDF, 175KB) by Gerald F. Goodwin, PhD, and Nikki Blacksmith, PhD, the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, and Meredith R. Coats, PhD, The George Washington University.

    The U.S. military can teach us a lot about teamwork and interdependence. The importance of teams has led the military to fund 60 years of research on the topic. From this work, we know strong leadership is imperative and cohesive teams perform better and stay together longer. We also know what teams think, how team members think together and how in sync they are determines their ability to perform well. These findings extend far beyond the military as this body of research and ongoing work has implications for health care, space exploration and other fields. The authors share more insights on the six decades of teamwork research and offer directions for future research to address the challenges in our increasingly complex and global world.

    Contact: Gerald F. Goodwin, PhD
  • Debriefs: Teams Learning From Doing in Context (PDF, 194KB) by Joseph A. Allen, PhD, Roni Reiter-Palmon, PhD, and John Crowe, PhD, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Cliff Scott, PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

    Debriefs are a type of meeting where teams get together to discuss, interpret and learn from recent events in which they collaborated. In a variety of forms, these types of meetings are used by organizations across many industries. The U.S. military began using debriefs decades ago to promote learning and performance across the services. Since then, debriefs have been adopted by the medical field, fire service, aviation, education and other industries. Research suggests that well-conducted debriefs can increase team effectiveness by as much as 25 percent, but what are the essential components of a successful debrief? One key aspect of a successful debrief is that it must offer a psychologically safe space where people feel free to speak openly and honestly without fear of reprisal. When team members worry about criticism, blaming or being censured, the discussion is less likely to include important information about what went wrong and that can interfere with development of improvements in future events. This article provides a review of a number of psychological factors relevant to debrief effectiveness across a range of settings. 

    Contact: Joseph A. Allen, PhD
  • Team Development Interventions: Evidence-Based Approaches for Improving Teamwork (PDF, 260KB) by Christina N. Lacerenza, PhD, the University of Colorado Boulder, Scott I. Tannenbaum, PhD, The Group for Organizational Effectiveness Inc., and Eduardo Salas, PhD, and Shannon L. Marlow, MS, Rice University.

    The amount of time we spend at work collaborating with others is on the rise, yet most of us do not understand how to make teams work effectively. Simply because a group of employees is highly skilled does not mean they will be an expert team, according to this research. The authors advocate for psychologically informed team and leadership training with structured programs to improve capabilities. Team building should extend far beyond social activities to facilitator-led discussions and exercises. The study also advised frequent team debriefing as a way for employees to learn from an experience and to cover what succeeded and what did not. The essential ingredients for healthy debriefing are an environment of openness, safety, respect and trust. The authors also discussed areas for further research, such as virtual teams and nontraditional leadership structures.

    Contact:: Eduardo Salas, PhD
  • The Trade-Offs of Teamwork Among STEM Doctoral Graduates (PDF, 159KB) by Kevin M. Kniffin, PhD, Cornell University, and Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, The Ohio State University.

    Teamwork has become increasingly popular in academia partly because research shows that teams tend to produce superior work. Less is known, however, about how teamwork affects individual-level career outcomes, such as salary and job satisfaction. The authors of this article analyzed data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Doctorate Recipients, as well as the Survey of Earned Doctorates. They found that doctoral degree holders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics tend to earn substantially higher salaries and work more hours when they engage in teamwork. They found no comparable difference in job satisfaction for those who engaged in teamwork and those who did not. These finding help to explain why people do not uniformly seek to work in teams, as the trade-off for a higher salary seems to be more work hours with no comparable difference in job satisfaction.

    Contact: Kevin M. Kniffin, PhD
  • The Complexity, Diversity, and Science of Primary Care Teams (PDF, 249KB) by Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH, and Susan McDaniel, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center.

    Traditionally, health care has been organized around a patient's face-to-face visit with a physician. In that model, nurses, medical assistants, technicians and secretaries support the work of the physician. As modern health care has grown more complex, this traditional model of primary care has become outdated. Team-based systems have evolved to accommodate changes in information, insurance policies and patients' needs and preferences. This article identifies key factors that support primary care teamwork and those that challenge it. It concludes with recommendations for advancing teams in primary care, including changes in payment, models for primary care team training and suggestions for further research that needs to be conducted to address gaps in current scientific knowledge.

    Contact: Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.